Protesting Too Much | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Protesting Too Much

Activism is morally superior to apathy, says Paul Rogat Loeb--as long as he approves of the cause.

by

comment

Raul Ortiz grew up in public housing in Uptown. With the help and advice of a local priest, he attended Saint Benedict's and then the University of Illinois at Chicago. At UIC he overcame his upwardly mobile Republican tendencies and even joked about being "too radical" for the campus Society of Hispanic Engineers. Instead he became president of the Confederation of Latin American Students (CLAS). He organized volunteers for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, a Central America awareness week, and an outreach program linking UIC Latino students with their high school counterparts--all while studying engineering and working part-time.

Ortiz is one of dozens of college students from more than 100 U.S. campuses tracked by Paul Rogat Loeb in Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus. Loeb spent seven years interviewing family-farm advocates at the University of Nebraska, Greeks for Peace at the University of Michigan, black and white student groups and their disparate responses to alleged racial harassment at Emory University, participants in a bitter 1991 strike over a tuition increase at New York City's Hunter College, and members of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, which mushroomed from one campus to more than 1,000 in four years. Loeb also interviewed members of the nonactivist student majority--those who like things as they are, or who feel that they don't know enough to take public stands, or who are just doing other things. He concluded by following his students as they took their first steps off campus and into the world: "Will they take responsibility for what they perceive to be the common social good? Or will they take the path of greatest convenience, looking out primarily for their personal lives?"

Generation at the Crossroads is a thorough, readable, and respectful piece of reporting. But it's also a political tract. Loeb believes that "if individuals do nothing, the state of our communities and of the world will only grow worse." He also tacitly assumes that "activism," "community concern," "taking strong stands," and "working for social change" all mean organizing for the array of left-wing causes he clearly believes in and whose student advocates he interviewed.

Accordingly, Loeb was not thrilled when he checked back with Raul Ortiz two years after he first interviewed him. Still at UIC and working as a courier for Federal Express, Ortiz was no longer a leftist or activist. He didn't object to the CIA's recruiting on campus, nor to UIC's pushing out Maxwell Street market. He didn't even complain about the university raising its admission standards, even though the change had forced his brother to attend a community college instead. He told Loeb he went to CLAS meetings only rarely, and then "mostly to argue with all these liberals." He added, "They say that this university was for...the sons and daughters of the Mexicans and Italians that they displaced, and that now it isn't. They have an attitude that the university owes them something. I don't think it does. It's ludicrous to say a university should have a mission. If I wanted a cheeseburger, fries, and pop that was three-fifty at McDonald's and I only had two and a half dollars, I wouldn't ask them to give it to me for less. I'd go to White Castle and order something else, or work harder and earn more."

Still, he told Loeb, all of his old convictions hadn't changed. "I still vote Democratic out of guilt for the poor people of the world....[And I] like people who challenge. I like Jesse Jackson. I like the underdog. I'm always going to be a die-hard Cubs fan. Maybe I'll come around and maybe I won't."

Did Ortiz sell out? Did he finally come to his senses? Or is real life too complex to fit on either bumper sticker? Clearly his story disappoints Loeb, who leads us to believe that by focusing on improving his own situation instead of on improving that of others, Ortiz took the wrong turn at the generational crossroads of the book's title.

Overall Loeb was encouraged by the students he met. Yet he seems to be writing not for them but for their parents--or more accurately for the minority of the baby-boom generation who were activists in their college days and who worry that collegiate twentysomethings aren't carrying their fight forward. In a sense, Generation at the Crossroads is a 458-page reply to a Doonesbury cartoon in which a frustrated professor mouths increasingly outrageous falsehoods while his sheeplike students go right on taking notes. Loeb found copies of this cartoon on professors' doors almost everywhere he went, but he doesn't think it's accurate. The book serves to reassure Loeb's anxious fellow boomers, including those professors, that the kids are all right. The tradition of campus activism may have lain dormant, but now it's coming back strong.

That message is sure to give its intended audience a pleasant buzz. It may reassure them that they were right, and it may even inspire them, as Loeb seems to intend, to take up activist causes again, to make activism a lifelong commitment. But the world of 1995 is very different from the world of 1970. Yet Loeb sees today's student causes through glasses that were colored in the early 70s, and he can't seem to take them off.

The first sign of trouble is that he seems to portray all causes that his student activists undertake as equally virtuous. The movement to keep public college tuition affordable is lumped with the movement at the University of Nebraska to protect the family farm. But should it be? Isn't it possible that low tuition is in the public interest (because it promotes social mobility and equal opportunity), but that asking the government to inflate food prices to keep small farmers on the land is not? For that matter, is it true, as Loeb states, that the needs students identify can be met by simply redistributing the nation's wealth?

These questions would be irrelevant if Loeb were simply reporting on the campus scene. But he's also in the business of judging student activists as morally superior to nonactivists, so it seems reasonable to expect him to weigh the merits of their causes.

There are, however, campus causes in which Loeb takes little interest--conservative ones. Prolife activists, for instance, barely appear in the book. Polls show that most students are prochoice, Loeb says in a footnote, so he doesn't have to write about antiabortion activists or even about those who subscribe to Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment" life ethic, opposing war, capital punishment, and abortion equally.

This is disingenuous, and Loeb's slightly embarrassed tone suggests that he knows it. After all, the fact that antiapartheid or antinuclear activists were in the minority didn't--and shouldn't--stop him from writing about them. (The U. of N. family-farm group had no more than ten core members.) Conservatives do occasionally pop up in the book for brief quotes--prowar students during the gulf war, a black Republican at Emory--but that's all.

Loeb repeatedly portrays the "crossroads" of his title as a simple choice between heartless individualism and community concern. Yet his unwillingness to include such a thing as conservative community concern clearly links him to off-campus left-wingers and liberals. Many environmentalists, for instance, think there are no sincere believers in private property rights, only stooges for developers. Many gun-control activists see only blind prejudice in their opponents. Taking a similar ostrichlike posture, Loeb finds no students who truly anguish over the fate of fetuses--only young people who haven't learned to question authority yet.

Loeb can get away with this partly because we in his activist-boomer audience tend to think back to what we remember as simple choices--between lynch mobs and black would-be voters, between lying Constitution-bashers and Vietnamese revolutionaries. We believe the choices back then really were that simple and that today's choices are no more difficult--even though it's clear that few of the choices of any generation are simple. Where, for instance, are the simple choices when trying to decide where to stand on the issue of racially gerrymandered legislative districts or a congressionally authorized war against Iraq?

The "crossroads" today's students face has a multitude of forks, among them left/radical activist, conservative activist, and apathetic. Loeb, like many a left-ish boomer author, doesn't say this, perhaps because it's easier to sneer at gross selfishness than it is to make the case that a liberal/radical community concern is better than a conservative community concern.

Of course Loeb could make that case, and on many issues he could make a strong one. But to do so he would have to acknowledge that there are real arguments and principled opponents on the other side, not just well-paid dupes of Milton Friedman or the pope. And he would have to acknowledge that Raul Ortiz hasn't lost his concern for his own community, that Ortiz just doesn't think low admission standards, which reduce the value of his diploma, are going to help anybody.

If students' options are as simple as Loeb describes them--either "resign themselves to steadily worsening social conditions" (i.e., be apathetic and selfish) or "work to create a wiser and more humane society"--then the choice looks easy and the nonactivists look like fools. But if there's more than one version of a better society, then the choices are trickier and the possibility of making mistakes greater.

Loeb approvingly quotes the rationale of a member of Greeks for Peace: "You don't need a lot of information to know that killing people is wrong and should be stopped." But this is another emotional platitude that's difficult to apply to the real world. Moreover, some students clearly realize that to selflessly commit oneself to a cause that claims to be creating a "wiser and more humane society" could wind up only making things worse. Yet when their uncertainty makes them tell Loeb "I don't know enough" he criticizes them for setting a "perfect standard"--an alibi for never doing anything.

What about after graduation? Students alone aren't going to bring about the changes Loeb would like to see. He clearly assumes that morally superior people will be activists all their lives, and at a deep level, no matter how we spent our college years, most of us in his intended audience assume that activism (however defined) is good and apathy bad. We may not all become activists, but we sure as hell feel guilty if we don't. Clearly Ortiz has learned that lesson: "Maybe I'll come around." As Loeb insists, people who do their jobs and live a private life, who don't attend meetings and agitate, are just dead weight on society.

Our experience in the years since 1970 suggests that this isn't the whole story. For one thing, ill-considered activism can add dead weight--or worse--to society. The 1980 Superfund law, once hailed as a victory for grass-roots environmentalists, has enriched many lawyers but cleaned up few contaminated waste sites. And because the law charges Superfund site owners (past and present) using a soak-the-rich principle--according to how much money they have, rather than how much pollution they caused--it has rendered inner-city industrial locations virtually undevelopable.

Moreover, activists, however uncomfortable it makes them, depend on people who just do their jobs. When Harold Washington became mayor in 1983 his aides lamented having to fight the battle for a fairer city government with "someone else's troops." Washington could not have been elected without activists of all races, but in office he could have accomplished more if the Machine-era city employees he inherited had been more dedicated to just doing their jobs rather than continuing to be activists in the service of their white racist patronage benefactors. Sometimes you just need someone to do the photocopying and answer the phones. The engineering student who told Loeb "I think the world would be lots better off if people attended to their own work" wasn't entirely mistaken.

Activists also need people who simply do their jobs well in a more profound way. From antibiotics to supermarkets to cars to computers, the technological and marketing innovations that make our lives better than our great-grandparents' came about through private enterprise, not public protest. Henry Ford and Steven Jobs and the people who worked for them improved our lives by improving their own. Of course this isn't the whole story either--but it's a part that Loeb doesn't acknowledge.

Generation at the Crossroads might have been helpful if it had offered more than a 1970-ish laundry list of progressive pieties and the equally dated assertion that every need can be satisfied by sharing the wealth. The reader can only fall back on unhelpful common sense: There's more than one way to be "active." Sometimes activism is good and necessary. Sometimes apathy is OK. The problem of course has always been how to figure out which times are which.

Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus by Paul Rogat Loeb, Rutgers, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Mike Brooks.

Add a comment